ABOUT 350 MILES SOUTH OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, Dawson City was perched, improbably, on a bed of permafrost by the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. Despite its name, I saw that it was more of a small town than a city. It had been founded in the 1896 gold rush; and from Front Street on, its shops — named Gold Trail, Goldbottom, and Gold & Gifts — announced, loudly, that the romance of gold lived on here.
I had come here to work on a novel set in my homeland, Nepal. I was what is known as a 'New Canadian' — an immigrant at an early stage of acculturation to Canada’s vast, and largely uninhabited, land. Upon settling in Toronto I had noted that Canadians seemed very content in their Canadianness. I had not, myself, experienced much Canadianness. And so I had applied to the Writers' Trust of Canada, which every year dispatches four writers, for three months each, to Dawson City, to live and work in the childhood home of the Canadian historian Pierre Berton. My journey had taken a day-and-a-half on airplanes of diminishing size and security standards.
I was, I knew, the only Nepali in the Yukon. I settled in feeling conspicuously foreign, and spent a few weeks just taking in the town.
The romance of Front Street echoed through the rest of Dawson City's commercial hub, which consisted of three streets lined with hotels and pubs such as Klondike Kate's and Bombay Peggy's, memorializing post-gold rush ladies of leisure. Diamond Tooth Gerties, a gambling hall, put on can-can dances recalling the town's early aspiration to be the 'Paris of the North.' Parks Canada had renovated a theatre, a post office, a newspaper office, a blacksmith's shop, a bank, a courthouse, several official residences and even a mortuary of yore. I learned that in gold rush lingo, a sourdough was a miner who resourcefully survived the first winter of the gold rush and, like the bread that sustained him, rose again in the Spring thaw. The term cheechako referred to the opposite: a blundering newcomer. Sourdough Joe's Restaurant and Cheechakos Bake Shop kept this lingo — and the romance of gold — determinedly alive.
In the summer, the town swells with 50,000-odd gold rush themed tourists and tourism-industry workers. By mid-August, though, the 'summer people' have left, and by the end of September, when I got there, most of the businesses and many of the houses were boarded shut for the year. As the temperatures dropped to below zero in October, the community curled into itself for comfort. The town's winter population was 1,800 but felt more like 500.
Yet even the -25 centigrade days of watery blue sunlight conspired to romanticize.read more